If anyone doubts the con artist's right to the word "art," they haven't met the Brothers Bloom. When Stephen Bloom masterminds a con, he's not just thinking about how to drain money from a mark, but how to lead that sucker to a mindset in which money is no longer the issue. The perfect con, Stephen realizes at a young age, is one in which everyone gets what they want. And so he builds elaborate plots rife with motifs, literary references and thematic arcs, so he knows exactly what everyone is going to do before they know it themselves.
Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom is a movie that somehow feels as light as air while carrying considerably more heft than the average con-men movie. It has all elements of your classic con--exotic locations, convoluted plans, unexpected twists, controlled explosives and a fun look behind the smoke and mirrors. But where it really shines is in its characters, whose wildly successful exploits accompany a tragic yearning. The film is as influenced by Dostoyevsky as by off-kilter crime comedies.
Adrien Brody stars as Bloom (whether his first name is the same as his last name or he just goes by his last name is anyone's guess), the younger brother of the duo who can only experience real human interaction while performing a part in a con. His older brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is quite aware of this, and articulates his brother's desire for "an unwritten life." In all his schemes, and all the resolution he's created, this desire of Bloom's is the one thing Stephen hasn't been able to grant. But he hopes that his new con on a reclusive heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz) will finally give Bloom his elusive freedom.
Whatever Stephen's grand intentions as a con man are, the film's virtuoso prologue reveals that his first ingenious con was born from a desire to get Bloom to interact with other kids. Set 25 years before the main story, the sequence (narrated by illusionist Ricky Jay, whose completely badass voice-over you may remember from Magnolia.) finds the two boys as outcast foster children who travel from town to town, ever the ostracized misfits.
In the modern day, the boys have teamed up with Bang Bang, played by Rinko Kikuchi, who gave one of the best performances of the decade in Babel. Bang Bang doesn't say anything, but Kikuchi proves herself as a fine comic actress simply by timing and facial expressions.
Weisz rose to the occasion of what was probably the film's most difficult role, that of the awkward Penelope. Shut in her mansion and able to live, she spent most of her pre-Bloom time collecting hobbies, some normal like musical instruments, some odder, like watermelon photography. The con Stephen's cooked up is one of a classic crime adventure. Penelope doesn't care about the money, she just wants to go on a real adventure.
Johnson, production designer Jim Clay and costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor echo Penelope's craving by creating a world that exists as a sort of temporal anomaly. While the film is set in modern times, the sets and costumes express a nostalgia for those romantic settings where seedy characters, danger and discoveries were always lurking.
The Brothers Bloom is writer/director Johnson's second film, following Brick, the 2005 detective noir loaded with hardboiled dialogue that happened to be set in a modern-day high school. That stunning debut made it clear that we were dealing with a someone who had a way not only with dialogue, but with the language of the screen. There are plenty of directors who can light the set and place the camera somewhere to make it look pretty, but with Johnson, you know you're in the hands of an assured director who has determined both the tone and the substance he wants to convey with every shot.
Note an establishing shot on the dining room of the cruise boat. As Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" plays, we see a woman playing with a crystal glass, an aborted kiss and a cigar-smoking swell on the way to our main characters. Another shot combines graffiti, sound design and the placement of a door for an utterly memorable character entrance. And a montage of Penelope's many hobbies has a classic punchline.
The Brothers Bloom rewards multiple viewings because the characters are constantly operating on multiple levels--what the plan is, how they expect it to play out, what they actually want to happen, etc. Repeat viewings, with more knowledge of motivations, provides new, emotionally fascinating insights. This film is packed with charm and humor, yes, but its success lies in its love for its characters.
Details are crammed into every moment of The Brothers Bloom and Summit's DVD release captures them all. The carefully chosen color palate is well-reproduced, the textures well-defined and the compression discrete. The film is presented in its original, immersive 2.40:1 aspect ratio. This is a well-cared-for transfer and encode.
The film is presented with its original 5.1 English soundtrack, as well as a dubbed Spanish 5.1 track. There might be a muddy moment here and there, given the film's budget, but overall the clear, clever, well-mixed sound design is reproduced well.
The disc also includes Spanish subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The special features on The Brothers Bloom DVD make it one of those rare releases that truly reveals the intricacies of the filmmaking process. The feature-length audio commentary track by Johnson and producer Ram Bergman is both enlightening and funny. Johnson does most of the talking, although Bergman occasionally chimes in to comment on the challenge of making the film on such a tight budget. Johnson tries to keep the proceedings amusing while he delivers his very well thought-out filmmaking philosophy and discusses the reasoning behind his creative choices.
From Sketch to Celluloid follows the progression of the film's look from concept to final result. The feature splits the screen into two or three panels--showing side-by-side comparisons of Johnson's initial notebook scribblings, the professionally drawn storyboards and/or the completed scene from the feature. The most fascinating of the three scenes is the prologue, deconstructed in its entirety. The second two segments only feature the professional storyboards and final film. They contain Bloom's attempt to meet Penelope by staging a bicycle accident and a car chase from late in the film.
The Behind the Scenes segment shot by Kevin Ford is by no means typical. Rather than attempt to tie together themes or create an arch through narration and or interviews, we see straight-up behind the scenes footage of the crew at work, with an occasional title card explaining who people are. At one point, Ruffalo, after chatting briefly about some of the humor in the film, asks "Is this like an interview?" Ford (I presume) replies "no" and Ruffalo starts eating an orange.
The deleted scenes are presented in anamorphic widescreen, but as is to be expected, aren't at the same level of pictutre quality. Some of them suffer from interlacing problems. The 25 deleted scenes total more than half-an-hour in length and serve as a great illustration of how little changes can dramatically alter the plot, tone and thrust of the narrative. While some of the scenes are simple throwaway moments that were cut for time, others word take away certain mysterious elements if they were kept in the film. Most enriching is a lengthy alternate version of the ending, which, among other things, changes the twist.
While not as flawless as Johnson's debut, The Brothers Bloom is a highly entertaining film that proves more intelligent with every viewing. The DVD reproduces the film very well and offers insight into how films are constructed and how they can change in the editing room.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.